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A Day of Ritual and Remembrance
Reagan Saluted From California To the Capital

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2004; A01

To the strains of solemn music and the slow beat of drums, the body of Ronald Wilson Reagan rode in a final parade through Washington yesterday to the Capitol Rotunda, where the 40th president of the United States will lie in state until his funeral tomorrow.

Tens of thousands of citizens lined Constitution Avenue and the West Entrance to the Capitol, many having waited for hours in wilting heat to pay their respects. Later, after an austere ceremony beneath the soaring dome, the first of an anticipated 150,000 mourners began walking past Reagan's coffin, which lay on the black velvet-covered catafalque first used at the death of Abraham Lincoln.

"Ronald Reagan was more than just a historical figure. He was a providential man who came along just when our nation, and our world, needed him," said Vice President Cheney beside the light-bathed and flag-draped coffin.

"Fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man."

So began Washington's first state funeral in more than 30 years, on a day steeped in tradition but also unnervingly 21st century. Just hours before Reagan's body reached the Capitol, the building was evacuated in a panic amid reports that an unidentified aircraft was closing in. The plane turned out to be a private craft carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) that had briefly lost contact with ground controllers.

Virtually every police officer in Washington was on duty and at high alert; bomb-sniffing dogs inspected flag-decked light poles; the federal government declared a "National Special Security Event," which Attorney General John D. Ashcroft declared "a sad commentary . . . [on] modern life in Washington."

The public commemoration of the man whose conservative politics and infectious optimism transformed American public life will continue through tomorrow's funeral at Washington National Cathedral. More than 20 heads of state, past and present, planned to attend -- the largest gathering of dignitaries the city has seen in at least five years. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Britain's Prince Charles have accepted invitations.

Lech Walesa, the former Polish leader whose anti-communist Solidarity movement thrilled Reagan during the last years of the Soviet empire, will attend, as will the last premier of the Soviet Union that Reagan so long and stoutly opposed, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The State Department counted 141 embassies intending to send representatives to honor Reagan.

The White House announced that President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will visit the Rotunda this evening after returning to Washington from the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga. After paying their respects, they plan to meet with Reagan family members, who are staying at Blair House.

Unfolding with the slow weight of majesty and awe, the day's rituals recalled, for many, moments remembered or recounted from 1963, the presidential death most seared into the national consciousness. The riderless horse, the flag-draped coffin, the old artillery caisson rolling to the creak and clip-clop of horses in harness. But this was a different, easier experience.

John F. Kennedy was cut down in his prime by violence. Reagan, who was born six years before Kennedy, outlived him by four decades -- indeed, at 93, he lived longer than any previous president. Kennedy's coffin rolled through the November chill; Reagan's through the June sunshine. The Kennedy procession was black and white; Reagan's was Technicolor.

"Daddy, I'll remember this for the rest of my life, won't I?" said Barkley Hancock, 10, of Greenville County, Ky. Hancock's Boy Scout troop No. 40 had been touring Washington and waited on the Constitution Avenue sidewalk to witness living history after a day of visiting the museum variety.

People began gathering in early afternoon, and by 5 p.m. -- when Reagan's body arrived at Andrews Air Force Base -- they stood four or five deep along the metal railings lining the route from the Ellipse to the Capitol. Many wore shorts and sneakers, baseball caps and backpacks, which might have pleased a president who enjoyed shirtsleeves as well as tails.

Some were tourists. Some were Washingtonians. Some had flown, driven or taken trains from places across the country -- Florida, Georgia, Ohio -- just to mourn this man.

Laura Levert, 57, an elementary school teacher from Fontana, Wis., decided Tuesday afternoon that she had to be there. She caught a plane yesterday morning and met her sister-in-law, in from Connecticut. "I just feel so patriotic in this city," she said. "I'm so proud to be an American." She said she never felt such an allegiance to any other president.

Not everyone shared that bond, yet they still felt it was right to pause and witness. Tourist Kwabena Ndubia, a commercial window-washer from Memphis, recalled Reagan as a sometimes-offensive president to African Americans. "Some of his policies I didn't care for, but he definitely believed in freedom, and I certainly enjoy freedom."

Scott P. Flattery, a self-described "lefty" from New Hampshire, called Reagan "a good president and a good man. It's history -- history in the making."

That was, perhaps, the whole point of the long and ritualized goodbye. In recent days, since Reagan's death Saturday of Alzheimer's disease, some have noted that Reagan was a divisive president in office. But all presidents are divisive, at least since George Washington retired to Mount Vernon and the first partisan feuds of the young nation broke into open view. In two elections, Reagan won 1,014 electoral votes to 62 for his opponents, but that didn't make his critics oppose him any less.

But by elaborate ceremony, such as those gradually playing out this week, men of party and conflict are transmuted into the unity of the nation's past. Washington, D.C. -- one of just two jurisdictions Reagan never carried -- welcomed him back. People may vote as partisans and still mourn as Americans.

The day began in California, Reagan's home since he went west in the 1930s to take up a career as a movie star. The last of more than 100,000 people -- who had endured L.A. traffic and endless lines -- visited the coffin at the Reagan library in Simi Valley.

On a bright and breezy morning, the body traveled by motorcade to Point Mugu Naval Air Station about 25 miles and 45 minutes away. Traffic stopped across the freeway median and drivers stood -- some with hands over their hearts -- as the hearse went by. Farmers climbed down from their tractors and doffed their caps. On the tailgate of a pickup truck, a little boy stood at attention and saluted smartly.

At the air base, an honor guard of sailors, Marines and airmen waited stiff as tin soldiers while a Marine Corps artillery battery fired the first of the day's three 21-gun salutes. Then they carried the coffin from the hearse to an airport lift as the band of the 3rd Marine Air Wing played "Amazing Grace."

Nancy Reagan, dressed in black, climbed a long stairway to the cabin door of the enormous presidential jet sent to carry the late president and his family to Washington. At the top of the stairs the tiny figure turned to wave -- a gesture recalled from history.

At 9:40 a.m., the jet lifted into a cloud-puff sky, bound for Washington.

A little more than four hours later, it came down through hot, hazy air to a welcome much like the California farewell: the honor guard, the booming guns, the brass band. A small crowd at the gates of Andrews Air Force Base watched a motorcade set slowly forth toward Washington where, promptly at 6 p.m., the hearse pulled up to the ceremonial cortege.

A handsome black Standardbred horse named Sgt. York was waiting, bearing a polished saddle and shiny stirrups. The saddle was empty, but the stirrups held Reagan's high brown riding boots, facing backward. The former first lady emerged from a limousine to a wave of applause, and stood stock-still, looking drained, as the coffin was loaded onto the caisson.

A mourning dove called.

Someone in the crowd yelled, "God bless you, Nancy!"

It was James Ruby, 40, from Indian Head. He wore his Pepco T-shirt, having left work at 2:30 p.m. to be part of the crowd. "They put the red, white and blue back in our flag," he explained. "I know that sounds corny, but it's true."

The procession set off at a steady pace up the wide, tree-lined avenue past the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor. Not an obvious backdrop for a president who disliked regulation, campaigned against taxes and fired striking air traffic controllers. But what reads as irony to some might read as healing to others.

Twenty-one jets roared low and loud over the avenue, and one veered off dramatically to symbolize the missing man. Cameras clicked. Now and then a siren moaned. Sgt. York pranced nervously up the route.

Up ahead, dignitaries waited at the Capitol, watching on television. Reagan's last White House chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, found himself marveling at the spectacle. "I keep thinking President Reagan would say, 'Aw shucks -- for me?' " he said.

Not long before, at 4:37 p.m., the Capitol and nearby congressional office buildings had been evacuated in a mad dash out of fear of a terrorist attack.

Photographers, Secret Service agents and members of a military choir were finishing preparations for the Rotunda ceremony. Suddenly, Capitol Police burst in, shouting: "Evacuate the building now! Now! Move! Move!"

As an alarm whoop-whooped, lawmakers, their aides, constituents and mourners streamed from the buildings and were pushed back several blocks before the all-clear was given. Christina Nunez, 19, a Duke University student interning in the office of Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) was terrified by the experience. "It's only my second week and I've been evacuated -- and a president is being lain in state. Those are the most historic things I've seen."

At the foot of the immense staircase that leads to the West Front of the Capitol, another 21-gun salute. Then strong servicemen carried the coffin up 99 steps to the place where Reagan declared, in his 1981 inaugural address: "We have every right to dream heroic dreams."

Inside, Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) delivered a eulogy before members of Congress and the diplomatic corps. "When others stepped back," he said, "President Reagan stepped forward. And he did it all with great charm, great humility and great humor."

The service ended with the singing of Reagan's favorite hymn, "America the Beautiful," by the Air Force's Singing Sergeants. The music swelled and echoed and rose into the dome. During rehearsal, Sgt. Anne Seaton, 36, was moved to tears by the sound of it. "As soon as we started singing. . . . It was too beautiful. It was beyond me," she said.

Honored guests paid their respects -- people such as Thatcher, Reagan's steely comrade in the free market revolution, and Justice Antonin Scalia, the former president's conservative legacy on the Supreme Court, and Alexander Haig, the former secretary of state who lost his job after forgetting that the Reagan administration had just one leading man.

A sweltering day faded to dusk. The doors opened to the public, and the first of many ordinary mourners, having waited for hours in the hot wind of giant fans set up to keep them comfortable, filed into the Capitol.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company